From the outside where bins of books lure visitors to pause and browse on a sunny day, to the golden hued interior where books fill every nook and cranny, Shakespeare and Company positively vibrates with literary history. In A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway said of the famed Paris bookstore, “On a cold windswept street, this was a warm, cheerful place with a big stove in winter, tables and shelves of books, new books in the window, and photographs on the wall of famous writers both dead and living.” He could have been describing the store as it is today, in its current location at 37 rue de la Bûcherie, (formerly a monastery) across the Seine from Notre Dame Cathedral. It’s a place where the most current books and writers mingle with rare old volumes, where the tradition of fostering new writers merges with a heritage that reaches back to 1919 and “The Lost Generation.”
When Hemingway discovered Shakespeare and Company back in the 1920s it was located at 12 Rue l’Odeon. Its owner, Sylvia Beach, both sold books and loaned them out, which was perfect for the impoverished writer who had just moved to Paris with his wife Hadley. (Read their story in Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife.) In those days, her shop was the center of modernist literary culture, with writers such as Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Pound, Stein, and Joyce congregating in the “warm, cheerful place” full innovative ideas. Not surprisingly, one could find all of the books banned in England and America—most notably, Joyce’s Ulysses—readily available in Beach’s shop. After publishers rejected Joyce’s gigantic Ulysses as pornographic, Shakespeare and Company published it.
But that was before the World War II. The shop closed after the Germans occupied Paris. Hemingway himself “liberated” the store when he entered Paris with the American troops in 1944, but the store didn’t reopen until the 1950s when George Whitman a new shop, originally called Le Mistral and later Shakespeare and Company, in its current location and continued Beach’s work. Here, a second generation of writers gathered, everyone from the last modernists—Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, Richard Wright, and Samuel Beckett—through the first Beats—Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Whitman’s daughter, Sylvia Beach Whitman now owns Shakespeare and Company, which has become the world’s most famous bookstore. It still serves as a haven for penniless writers, who are allowed to sleep among its shelves for free.
I have a feeling that Hemingway would feel at home in the the store today, though he would surely miss the first Sylvia Beach… and they’d want him to buy the books.